Internet law in India reinforces fears about online speech and privacy


NEW DELHI – It started in February with a tweet from pop star Rihanna that sparked widespread condemnation of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of massive farmer protests near the capital, damaging an already troubled relationship between the government and Twitter.

In order to contain the backlash, officials issued multiple injunctions on Twitter to block hundreds of tweets critical of the government. Twitter has complied with some and resisted others.

Since then, relations between Twitter and the Modi government have deteriorated.

At the heart of the deadlock is a sweeping internet law that places digital platforms like Twitter and Facebook under direct government surveillance. Officials say the rules are needed to crack down on disinformation and hate speech and to give users more power to report objectionable content.

Critics of the law fear it could lead to outright censorship in a country where digital freedoms have been shrinking since Modi took office in 2014.

Police raided Twitter offices and accused its Indian leader, Manish Maheshwari, of spreading “community hatred” and “hurting Indian feelings.” Last week, Maheshwari refused to submit to questioning unless the police promise not to arrest him.

On Wednesday, the company released a transparency report showing that India had submitted most government requests for information – legal requests for account information – to Twitter. It accounted for a quarter of global demands in July-December last year.

It was the first time since Twitter began publishing the report in 2012 that the United States had been moved as the “world’s top claimant,” he added.

“India’s plans for the internet are like those of a closed ecosystem like China,” said Raheel Khursheed, co-founder of Laminar Global and former head of politics, policy and government of Twitter India. “The Twitter case is the basis of a touchstone for how the future of the internet will be shaped in India.”

Tech companies face similar challenges in many countries. China has aggressively tightened controls on access to its market of 1.4 billion people, which is already largely sequestered by the Communist Party’s great firewall and US trade and technology sanctions.

India is another heavyweight, with 900 million users expected by 2025.

“Any internet company knows that India is probably the largest market in terms of scale. For this reason, the option to leave India is like the button it would press if it did not have any left.” said technical analyst Jayanth Kolla.

The new rules, in the works for years and announced in February, apply to social media companies, streaming platforms and digital news publishers. They make it easier for the government to order social media platforms with more than 5 million users to remove content deemed illegal.

Individuals can now ask companies to remove equipment. If a department reports content as illegal or harmful, it must be removed within 36 hours. Failure to comply could lead to criminal prosecution.

Tech companies also need to assign staff members to respond to user complaints, respond to government requests, and ensure overall compliance.

Twitter missed a three-month deadline in May, drawing a strong rebuke from Delhi’s High Court. Last week, after months of bargaining with the government, the government appointed the three officers as needed.

“Twitter continues to do everything possible to comply with the new 2021 IT rules. We have kept the Indian government informed of progress every step of the way,” the company said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Apar Gupta, executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, said he was concerned that the rules would lead to many cases against Internet platforms and deter people from using them freely, leading to self-censorship. Many other critics claim that Modi’s Hindu nationalist government is imposing what they call a climate of “digital authoritarianism.”

“If it becomes easier to remove user content, it will cool down online speech,” Gupta said.

The government insists that the rules will benefit and empower Indians.

“Social media users can criticize Narendra Modi, they can criticize government policy and ask questions. I have to say it right away. … To its users the right to redress, ex-IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told The Hindu newspaper last month.

Despite the antagonisms between Modi and Twitter, he has been an enthusiastic user of the platform in building popular support for his Bharatiya Janata Party. His government has also worked closely with the social media giant to allow Indians to use Twitter to seek help from government departments, especially during health emergencies. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s social media team has meanwhile been accused of launching online attacks against Modi’s critics.

Yet previous internet restrictions had already prompted Washington-based Freedom House to classify India, the world’s most populous democracy, as “partially free” instead of “free” in its annual analysis.

The law announced in February requires tech companies to facilitate police investigations and help identify people who publish “malicious information.” This means messages need to be traceable, and experts say this could mean end-to-end encryption would not be allowed in India.

Facebook’s WhatsApp, which has more than 500 million users in India, the government sued, saying breaking the encryption, which continues for now, “would seriously undermine the privacy of billions of people who communicate digitally. “.

Officials say they only want to track messages that incite violence or threaten national security. WhatsApp says it can’t do it selectively.

“It’s like renting an apartment from someone but wanting to see it whenever you want. Who would want to live in a house like this? Said Khursheed of Laminar Global.

The backlash over online freedom of expression, privacy and security concerns comes as part of a global push for more transparency and localization of data, said Kolla, the technology expert.

Germany requires social media companies to dedicate local staff and data storage to tackling hate speech. Countries like Vietnam and Pakistan are developing legislation similar to that of India. In Turkey, social media companies only complied with a general mandate to remove content after they were fined and threatened their advertising revenue.

Instead of leaving, some companies are battling the new rules in court, where at least 13 legal challenges have been filed by news publishers, media associations and individuals. But such cases can last for months or even years.

Mishi Choudhary, technology lawyer and founder of India’s Software Freedom Law Center, says under the rules, social media platforms could lose their safe haven protection, which protects them from legal liability for content generated by the users. The courts must decide on a case-by-case basis, she said. And their legal costs would inevitably increase.

“You know how it is in India. The process is the punishment,” Choudhary said. “And until we get to a place where the courts actually come to tell us what the legal position is and determine those legal positions, this is the open season for the tech backlash.”


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